Are your shoulders ready for hanging shrugs?

The following builds on a recent online discussion about the hanging shoulder shrug warm-up exercise. It began—as many things do—with a post from Liz Cooper. Like Liz, I, too, have mixed-feeling about the hanging shoulder shrug. The main reason for this is that there very often exists a discrepancy between what we want the exercise to be doing for the aerialist and what the aerialist’s body is actually doing during the exercise.

And this is where things get interesting.

Theresa and I have the glorious and ongoing opportunity to screen a whole bunch of circus artists as part of developing strength training plans for them (casual and mildly shameless self-promotion) and one of the most common things we see is insufficient scapular movement when they bring their arms overhead.

Say what now?

A part of the reason I decided to turn this into a blog post was that the online discussion got a little anatomical-terminology and biomechanics-heavy. Experience has shown it’s often times worth it to make sure we’re all understanding the anatomical implications of what we’re talking about.

Adult onset circus is usually accompanied by some circus-related Google-searching. That means you may have heard about scapulohumeral rhythm. It’s a big deal and here’s where that theoretical knowledge becomes real and practical

If you’d like to refresh your memory and do some good ol’ nerdy anatomy reading, you can find the goods here and here.

There’s raising your arms overhead and then there’s raising your arms overhead. You see, it doesn’t matter so much whether you can get there (arms overhead) as it matters how you get there.

In the case of overhead motion, it’s not just that your arm has to get to 180 degrees of overhead flexion, it’s that optimal mechanics involve the shoulder blade doing a combination of three things:

  • There’s some elevation,
  • Some posterior tilting, and
  • Some upward rotation.

Now, just about everyone is good at elevation because upper trap.

But the posterior tilting (lower trap) and upward rotation (serratus anterior) …well, not so much.

And so it is that when we put together workout plans for the folx we work with, our first focus (where improving movement quality is concerned) is usually improving scapular upward rotation (serratus anterior) because, as Emily Scherb pointed out in a delightfully nerdy coffee date a while back, circus artists probably need super-awesome scapular upward rotation.

Why? Because no one likes impingement pain

As you can see, we have the acromion—that bony bit that you can feel at the front/top of your shoulder—and we have subacromial bursa and the tendons of supraspinatus (a rotator cuff muscle) and the long head of the biceps brachii muscle.

And then we have the space in between the acromion and all of that other stuff. It’s called the subacromial space. Clever name, I know.

When you raise your arm overhead, this space gets smaller. By a lot. Strictly speaking, it pretty much disappears and the result is that the acromion impinges on all the other stuff (the bursa, the tendons).

Our goal is to minimize how much the acromion smashes into the bursa and tendons.

Improving scapular motion helps to “maintain” the subacromial space…where “space” is the key to minimizing impingement.

So that’s why we prioritize improving scapular motion as part of improving overhead movement patterns: all as part of the effort to minimize impingement by maintaining the subacromial space.

…and because improving scapular upward rotation often improves overall range of motion (and range of motion required for hanging from an aerial apparatus counts as extreme).

(I should note that the posterior tilting of the scapula that we get mainly from lower trap is also important and the beginnings of that discussion can be found here…but I’ll have to write more on that later).

Getting Your Shoulders Ready to Hang

Where all of this is going is to say that we often encounter compromised overhead range of motion and/or less-than-ideal mechanics for getting there. In the hanging position, this situation isn’t going to get better and my main concern is that it’s just a really great way to *create* an impingement problem (or make one worse).

However, hanging from things seems to be pretty central to the aerial class experience, so here are my thoughts on setting yourself up for success before you hang from a bar. Even if you have great overhead range of motion, the following will serve to prime the mobility and stability you already have, readying your body for the demands of hanging.

Before we dive into the exercises, I’d like to add an important caveat:

Ok, a two-part caveat:

  1. If any of this feels painful, or is verging on painful, please listen to that. It might just be your cue to visit a sports medicine professional.
  2. It would be really easy to breeze through any or all of the following exercises without really paying attention to what you’re asking your body to do. One of the biggest benefits of doing exercises like these (and of a well-designed strength training plan) is that they provide you with an opportunity to further develop your mind-muscle connection…and that’s kind of a huge deal for circus. And for life.

Minimize unwanted muscle tension with soft tissue work.

Usually, we combine do a breathing exercise before foam rolling. The order might not matter much, but your breathing is a powerful way to influence unwanted muscle tension.

Ultimately, it kind of depends on the individual and/or what you have available.

Get the shoulder blades moving independently from the thorax

This can either be just a nice warm-up exercise or a really good mind-body awareness developer exercise. Admittedly, this is happening with the shoulder only at 90 degrees…but it’s a starting point.

Stabilize the shoulder blades.

Because this is an important piece of the puzzle that we haven’t addressed yet. I’m a big fan of starting here:

Sweet Serratus Anterior Action

Now we go above 90 degrees and focus on getting some sweet serratus anterior action. 

I like the version with the foam roller because the goal is *not* to fully straighten your elbows but instead to just really reach/wrap/rotate your shoulder blades up and around your ribcage.

*Note that serratus anterior tends to be difficult to *feel* at first…largely because it’s difficult to really shorten it…at first. It gets better with practice.

Putting it all together (with some lower trap mojo)

It’s here that we often follow-up with back-to-wall shoulder flexion: 

…often featuring a bit of a ‘reach’ as you pass 90 degrees to facilitate more lower trap joy.

One more that I’d like to add

This one came to mind after Emily Scherb reminded us about the rotator cuff’s function: even though the name says ‘rotator’, what the rotator cuff muscles actually do is keep the ball (head of the humerus) centered in the socket (the glenoid of the scapula)…no matter where your arm is in space.

Start with just the static hold position and progress to here. There’s no rush. When you’re ready though, I might suggest just going backwards to focus on pressing overhead. I like this option also because it’s a great precursor to shoulder shrugs that are really active throughout the whole range of motion.

Speaking of which…

By this point, I think you could feel more comfortable moving over to a bar to hang–because you’ve done what you can to optimize mechanics for that particular training session.

Ideally, outside of class time, you’re also following a strength and conditioning regimen that reinforces and strengthens all of the above. That way, every time you come back to hanging, you’ve already been working on making hanging better.

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